by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Ever since man has first looked up at the stars, the question has been asked: What do you do when you see a space man? Yes, of course the correct answer is “you park in it, man” (please, please, hold your applause, you’re too kind).
However, for thousands of years, man has
written Christmas cracker jokes looked up and wondered what lies beyond the blue skies of our planet’s atmosphere. For most people, it’s only led to further questions. How can “space” exist? Why does it exist? Why do we exist? From religion and faith, to science and theory, everyone seems to have their own opinion on what they like to imagine fills the vast expanse of the Universe and beyond. It takes people way smarter than this bozo to fully comprehend the question, never mind the answer. Luckily, it’s not just people cleverer than me who have thought about this question. There have been people with far more imagination who have been able to put their thoughts and ideas into film and literature.
Most recently Christopher Nolan did so with the terrific Interstellar. Which prompted me to create this article. What other movies are out there that deal with man’s exploration of space and time that are worth watching? Well, here are ten films that I would recommend you start with if you too are into ‘stellar (geddit?!) This list is by no means comprehensive, by the way. I’m fully aware big names such as the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises are missing, as well as this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy. This is just 10 films I’d suggest watching if you enjoyed the adventure into space that was Interstellar!
Event Horizon (1997) Paul W.S. Anderson’s best film, it tells the story of a crew comprising of captain Laurence Fishburne, doctor Sam Neill, (plus others) who investigate of a spaceship that went missing some years ago called the Event Horizon. It miraculously returned with no crew left on board. It transpires that what happened was not quite as simple as they might’ve first thought. Next to Alien, it’s the perfect example of how to create an intelligent, atmospheric, space-horror. Quotes seemed to be almost directly lifted from Event Horizon in Interstellar (particularly the discussion around wormholes). It also raises interesting questions around what Hell is (or could be?) Complete with great performances, especially those of Fishburne and Neill around the descent into madness. Think of it as Hellraiser meets Alien. A real gem of a movie.
Contact (1997) In 1994, Robert Zemeckis released what will probably be the film he is remembered for, Forrest Gump. Well, with the exception of Back To The Future, perhaps. But one film of his that seems to have directly inspired the story of Interstellar is Contact, with its daughter grieving for her father and potential contact with another as yet unidentified life form. Using the relationship between father and daughter, it tries to bridge a gap between science and religion, life and death, between hope and reality. The concept behind Contact and how / what that will be like with other dimensions or lifeforms is handled with grace, whilst Jodie Foster gives a performance worthy of a movie such as this. The cast also features Matthew McConaughey, the star of Nolan’s epic! It’s a shame the ending lets the film down a little, but the rest of Contact is well worth a watch.
Europa Report (2013) After a crew are sent on a fact-finding mission to one of Jupiter’s moons (that would be the one called Europa…) they end up finding a bit more than they bargained for. I almost feel like I should disclaimer this movie to people as besides being a sci-fi set mainly in space, it’s also a found footage movie. If you can name another found footage movie set in space that’s better than this (Apollo 18 shouts will not be recognised) then congratulations, but I probably won’t believe you. It takes its time to find its feet, as the crew (Sharlto Copley, Karolina Wydra, Michael Nyqvist etc) slowly grow into their roles, but for a film that takes place mostly inside a tin can, there’s a fair amount of tension and drama to be found. The structure is slightly unsatisfactory and non-linear, but the ending will be what determines whether or not you’ll like this movie. Personally, I found the slightly existential journey surprisingly entertaining.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) I couldn’t really let the opportunity to recommend one of the greatest ever movies – not just sci-fi movies – pass me by without at least name-checking it. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, shot one year before the actual moon landings (that if you believe some conspiracy-nuts, the man himself shot in a studio) is more of an exploration of life and being than it is about space travel, but if there’s a sci-fi movie released post 1968 that isn’t at least in some minor way influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey, I’d be very surprised. Cerebral, contemplative and exceedingly beautiful. If you want to hear me rave about this film yet again, check out our Stanley Kubrick Corridor of Praise podcast.
Solaris (1972) For the more cultured film fan, Tarkovsky’s very – very – art-house science fiction film about a living planets attempts to contact a man orbiting it will be one of your favourite sci-fi movies. The problem is, of course, how do you communicate with something that you have no way of understanding? In my Decade In Film article for 1972, I mention Ludwig Wittgenstein who proposed that “if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it”. If our frames of reference are so far apart, so completely different, how could we possibly hope to even know when an alien species is attempting to communicate, never mind actually understand what it’s trying to say? The Fermi Paradox suggests that if aliens exist, why haven’t we heard from them yet? Well, perhaps they do try to contact us, but we don’t realise it. This is one of the driving principles behind Solaris, and beyond its 167 minute run time including lingering shots of ponds and motorways, and absolutely astonishing cinematography, it tries to answer some of these philosophical quandaries.
Moon (2009) A breakthrough semi-indie production in 2009, Moon stars Sam Rockwell as a worker on a lunar station coming to the end of his three-year stint. I suppose he has what can be described as a crisis of personality as his shift draws closer to an end. Atmospheric and remarkably well written, if at times a little bit silly, Moon is a very entertaining movie. Similar to one aspect of Interstellar, it deals with being in space and having no reliable means of contact with Earth. Whilst there’s a heck of a lot more to Duncan Jones‘ relatively low budget British BAFTA nominated movie than simply isolation, it would seem almost rude not to suggest fans of Interstellar give it a go.
This Island Earth (1955) The 1950’s heralded a new age in sci-fi movies. The likes of Don Siegel and Jack Arnold probably led the pack with films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came From Outer Space (in 3D no less!) However, This Island Earth by Joseph Newman was an incredibly ambitious project. It had a somewhat turbulent production history, which resulted in Jack Arnold himself being brought on board as an uncredited director. The sections of the film set on distant worlds and intergalactic battles became a bit too expensive and was shorter than planned, but it’s still admirable for the intention behind the film as well as its anti-war messages. It’s also a lot of fun in that cult-50’s sci-fi movie kind of way.
A Trip to the Moon (1902) There’s a huge amount of things one could say about this wondrous, imaginative, inventive and wholly original fantasy story made over 110 years ago by the inspirational Georges Méliès. From a technical point of view, Le voyage dans la lune is splendid. Suffice to say, it’s very impressive; from the special effects of the exploding moon people, to the incredible! science!-exclamation!-mark! The illusions Méliès crafted required true imagination and creativity. He was one of the first to create a movie such as this, of course! Even now, this short film is fantastic – in every sense of the word.
Love (2011) After writing my car off in February this year, I began the long commute to and from work via bus. During this time, BBC iPlayer kept me from grinding my teeth to stubs on my journey. I downloaded a lot of movies and documentaries to my tablet from iPlayer, some I’d heard of, some that were completely new to me, such as this mixed bag. I read the premise via the app, thought it sounded like it could be a really neat little indie sci-fi… and in part, it was. There’s strands that run throughout about isolation, human connection and indeed love, that are thought provoking and unique as an astronaut finds himself stranded on a spaceship. But, at the same time, it comes across as a meandering, dull, bewildering mess. You will either love or hate the soundtrack by Angels & Airwaves. It may have worked better as a short film as it does feel like a pop video, but it is atmospheric and definitely unlike a lot of other movies on this list.
Gravity (2013) I’ve purposefully left Gravity until the end of this list for a couple of reasons. One, you’re probably sick of seeing comparisons between Gravity and Interstellar by now. They were after all released by the same studio (Warner Bros) on the same date (7 November) and are both about space and gravity. The other reason is, just about everybody interested in seeing Gravity has by now seen it. However, the second best film of 2013 (according to Sight & Sound’s readers poll) in many ways laid the foundations for Interstellar. A sci-fi story that was taken seriously by critics, particularly at the big award ceremonies, and features some mind-boggling special effects. The story may be pretty simple, threatening to hold back what has the potential to be an all-time classic, but it is one of the best modern sci-fi’s and if you get a kick out of Interstellar, then Alfonso Cuarón’s film (clocking in at just ever so slightly over half the run time of Nolan’s blockbuster) should tick a few boxes for you. Oh, and watch it on as big a screen as possible. In 3D if at all possible. Honestly. 3D.
And that’s that! If you have any suggestions of your own or think I’ve missed some vital inclusions, or even if you have any recommendations for me, just post them below. You can find Owen’s Interstellar review here, and he will also be talking about it with Carole and Steve on the upcoming Failed Critics Podcast!